Defying the Cult of Optimism [99U]

  • May 8, 2014
  • INK Team

Optimism is my middle name. Anyone who knows me can attest to my cheerleading-like positivity and the ability to look at any situation as glass half full. Which is why when Oliver Burkeman, writer for The Guardian, started talking about the danger of optimism at the 99U Conference, I had a slightly panicked and extremely defensive gut reaction.

My inner monologue at the time: “What’s so wrong with being cheerful and positive? Isn’t optimism a strength? This cynical British guy is really getting on my nerves.”

The problem with “the cult of optimism,” as Burkeman calls it, is that optimism can push people to overcommit to the goal, pushing us to failure. Over pursuit of goals, he explained, can encourage cheating, inhibit performance when you aren’t feeling positive and optimistic and trigger unintended consequences.

“When we are so set on achieving our goals, we are in flight from uncertainty.” And negativity.

Instead of fleeing from negative feelings by covering them up with optimism, Burkeman suggests we figure out how to embrace negativity and the unknown. Two key ways to do this:

  1. Set a process goal. For example: write 500 words a day. They don’t have to be great words, just words. Focus on the process, not the output. Eventually creativity will catch up with you.
  2. Know that you don’t have to FEEL like it in order to do something. Creating something great doesn’t mean waiting until inspiration strikes, otherwise you’ll never finish. We don’t have to feel good about everything we create. The point is that you can do something, even when you don’t feel like it.

“If we can find ways to put one foot in front of the other, we will find ourselves in far more interesting places.”

As much as I hate to admit it, the cynical British guy has a point. Next time I find myself overcommitting to a goal or optimistically waiting for inspiration to strike before starting a project, I’ll remember to loosen my grip.


See what else I learned at the 2014 99U Conference from Tina Roth Eisenberg and Seth Godin